Al Jazeera shake-up may signal shift for Qatar Inc

Surprise changing of the guard raises fears Doha may rein in controversial news network
Al Jazeera shake-up may signal shift for Qatar Inc
The surprise changing of the guard has raised fears that Doha may be reining in Al Jazeera
By Reuters
Thu 22 Sep 2011 09:51 AM

Al Jazeera - the island - has become less of an island.

It isn't entirely clear why Wadah Khanfar resigned as the director of the Qatari state-owned and funded network after eight years.

But the quiet frenzy of speculation surrounding the departure of the man widely credited for putting the outspoken broadcaster on the map underscores Qatar's awkward membership of the Kings' club.

The surprise changing of the guard in the midst of the Arab spring has raised fears that Doha may be reining in Al Jazeera, notwithstanding vague denials from Khanfar that he gave in to outside pressure.

It is also a sharp reminder that an authoritarian government, albeit a popular and benevolent one, was bankrolling the trail blazing, and sometimes controversial, coverage of the protests that rocked the Arab world.

In one sense, Qatar's decision to put a member of the ruling family at the helm is in keeping with the practices of its royal neighbours.

Gulf leaders have a tendency to put their most prestigious institutions in the hands of insiders.

Al Jazeera has become a tool of immense political influence, as highlighted by disclosures in Wiki leaks that Khanfar had modified the channel's coverage of the Iraq war following pressure from the US.

By consolidating the ruling family's power at the top, it will now be even harder for Al Jazeera to claim it is free from bias, and more difficult to dismiss the complaints of foreign governments.

Compared to Libya and Egypt, the channel's coverage of Bahraini Shi'ite calls for greater rights has been seen as timid and driven by the policies of Sunni-ruled regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia.

But the reshuffle may be in the best interests of Qatar, which has recently discovered that its immense wealth gives it international clout independently from its broadcaster.

The World Cup, military participation in Libya, investments abroad, and a pledge of aid to Egypt all have raised Doha's standing. They are also less threatening to the stability of its powerful neighbours - and of Qatar itself.

(Una Galani is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own)


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